Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On film: Borg vs. McEnroe, tightly strung rivalry

For 1 hour and 37 minutes on a recent Sunday morning, I felt like I had gone back in time to the summer of 1980 and Sweden's Björn Borg was the top tennis player in the world, in pursuit of a record-breaking fifth Wimbledon gentlemen's singles championship. 

From 1974 to 1981, Borg dominated tennis, both on and off the court. He became the first male player in the Open Era to win 11 Grand Slam singles titles. He possessed a powerful forehand, perfected the two-fisted backhand, and was rigorously disciplined to a fault. On the other side of the net from the 24-year-old Borg was none other than John McEnroe, three years Borg's junior: young, American, talented, abrasive. When you think of Borg vs. McEnroe, you think of tennis, former rivals, best enemies. They were the antithesis of each other.

During a screening at the Cinema Club in Washington, D.C. on March 25, I watched Borg vs. McEnroe, which premiered in limited release in the U.S. last Friday. (It played last fall on the film festival circuit in Europe.) It is directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz with the screenplay provided by Swedish writer and director Ronnie Sandahl. Sverrir Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg while Shia LaBeouf portrays McEnroe.

Borg vs. McEnroe focuses on Borg's rise to prominence, starting from his youth through the 1980 Wimbledon Championships. We learn how Borg's coach, Lennart Bergelin (played brilliantly by Stellan Skarsgård), helps him to channel his competitive – obsessive – behavior off the court so that he can focus on his impulsive game on the court. Meanwhile, we also learn of McEnroe's complete obsession with Borg prior to their big Centre Court championship match.

"Essentially, the movie implies that, despite appearances to the contrary, Borg and McEnroe were inwardly very similar – and different mainly in their behavior. What the drama suggests is that the pressure to maintain appearances, to keep his furies under control and channeled, exacted a very high emotional price on Borg," writes critic Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

"I'm just like everybody else ... I'm not a machine," says Borg, during a testy exchange with a reporter on the eve of his showdown with McEnroe.

Overall, I found Borg vs. McEnroe enjoyable. The fourth set, 34-point tie-break, during which McEnroe saved five match points, takes up nearly the final third of the film. It is at times very riveting and played to its full dramatic effect. The points are fast and so are the edits. While the film focuses on the "Fire and Ice" rivalry between the two future Hall of Fame players, I feel I learned a lot more about the complexity of Borg's character – think tightly strung perfectionist – than I did of McEnroe. However, seeing McEnroe's bad on-court behavior recreated – yelling at both the chair umpire and at pigeons, too – brought back memories for which he's forever remembered. "You cannot be serious!"

Borg vs. McEnroe is presented in both English and Swedish with subtitles. I highly recommend this film.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

An understanding of racial justice in the shadow of statues

In the Shadow of Statues, which
was published March 20, is
on the New York Times
Bestseller List.
"These statues are not just stone and metal. They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge." 

– Mitch Landrieu, from In the Shadow of Statues

New Orleans is one of the great multicultural cities in the world. It is also a racially divided city that has dealt with its fair share of poverty and urban violence. In spite of all of its troubles, the Big Easy remains a beloved cultural treasure to everyone who visits thanks to its rich tradition of funky jazz music and the beauty and grace of its amazing food.

Enter Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans since 2010, who has been an important catalyst in helping his city rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. As the son of a former state legislator and mayor of New Orleans – who was a huge force in the integration of that city in the 1960s and 1970s – and the brother of a former U.S. senator from Louisiana, Landrieu grew up with a progressive education in the racially divided Crescent City among America's lingering Confederate monuments.

At a time when the issue of racism has become resurgent "with seemingly tacit approval from the highest levels of government and when too many Americans have a misplaced nostalgia for a time and place that never existed," Landrieu has written In the Shadow of Statues – a book that's a must read.

In the Shadow of Statues is equal parts memoir, history, and a "prescription for finally confronting America's most painful legacy." As a white southerner confronting his city's past history, Landrieu contributes a very strong voice to our national conversation about race in America today by taking on many difficult issues related to it, including slavery and inequality.

In praising In the Shadow of Statues, Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, writes: "With a balance of humility and conviction, he recounts his path to a more profound understanding of racial justice and explains how this journey led him to remove the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. It's an important book for everyone in America to read, because it shows how intellectual honesty can lead to moral clarity."

Mitch Landrieu at Politics & Prose Bookstore
in Washington, D.C. last week.
Last week, my wife and I attended a standing room-only book event at Politics & Prose Bookstore in northwest Washington, D.C., featuring a conversation between Landrieu and Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, before a thoughtful and engaging audience, that was followed by a 30-minute Q & A period and a book signing.

"There's a difference between remembering and revering history," said Landrieu, who addressed the people of New Orleans in May 2017 about his decision to take down and remove four Confederate monuments, including the statue of the famous southern Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The affected statues represent a mere four-year period of U.S. history, from 1861-65, but a searing one, too. While Landrieu said that the decision to remove the monuments was a difficult one, it was a right one, too. It was about eradicating history.

"We were on the wrong side of history," Landrieu told the Politics & Prose audience very matter-of-factly. "These statues were erected to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge. For decades, these statues have cast a long shadow on society, particularly African-Americans."

Lee Circle before the Confederate monument
of Robert E. Lee was removed in 2017.
Landrieu says In the Shadow of Statues is an invitation to stand and sit in other people's shoes. He recalled for his Politics & Prose audience a conversation he once shared with his dear friend, the famous jazz musician and educator – and New Orleans native son – Wynton Marsalis, who helped him see the truth about the city's exclusionary attitudes. "'Hey, man,'" Landrieu recalled the trumpeter saying to him. "'You should take the statue of Robert E. Lee down. Do you know how it got there and who put it up?'"

In the book, Landrieu expands on his conversation with Marsalis.

"I don't like the fact that Lee Circle is named Lee Circle."

"Why is that?"

"Let me help you see it through my eyes. Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we are, who we want to be, or who we are?"

Suddenly, Landrieu was listening.

Later in their conversation, according to the mayor, Marsalis added, "'Did you know Louis Armstrong left the city and never came back because of that statue? He did not even want to be buried in his hometown. You ever think about what Robert E. Lee means to someone black?'"

Landrieu emphasized that there's a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. "I think there are a lot of people who are struggling with the notion that the South fought for a cause that was reviled," he said. When you make sense of it, monuments are usually reserved for winners not losers. The Confederate monuments celebrated the losing side of the Civil War.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu
As Landrieu remarked back during his May 2017 speech, "For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth."

And, as Landrieu writes, "Here is the essential truth: We are better together than we are apart.

"Indivisibility is our essence."

Near the end of his conversation at Politics & Prose, Landrieu said, "If we are going to move forward as a country, we must confront the issue of race head on. Our diversity is what makes this country great.

"We need to understand our history. We need to tell the whole story."

Photo credits: Book cover courtesy of Amazon.com. Politics & Prose audience courtesy of @PoliticsProse Twitter. Robert E. Lee statue courtesy of New Orleans Advocate. Mitch Landrieu courtesy of Cheryl Gerber.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Hearing "I'll Still Love You" sung in a very unusual way

Elvis Costello wrote "I'll Still Love You" in 10 minutes.

Johnny Cash: Forever Words, an upcoming compilation of various all-star artists performing songs based upon the unrecorded poetry, lyrics and letters of the late Johnny Cash that's due out April 6, includes a lovely and elaborately orchestrated piano ballad featuring Cash's poem, "I'll Still Love You," performed by Elvis Costello. 

More than a dozen different country, blues, gospel, rock and R&B artists, including Willie Nelson, Roseanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, T Bone Burnett, and the late Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, contributed to Johnny Cash: Forever Words, which was produced by Cash's son, John Carter Cash. Thanks to its recent sneak preview, Costello's composition is already drawing lots of praise from music critics for its non-Johnny Cash-like approach.

Although Cash (who died in 2003) was known throughout much of his legendary career as a country artist, Costello's composition for Johnny Cash: Forever Words shouldn't necessarily be labeled a country song despite the songsmith's appreciation toward country music. Rather, think of it as a mature pop tune about extending love into the afterlife which "brings to mind the likes of Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney with, thanks to its jazz chording and crooner inflections, a touch of Frank Sinatra," writes Spin music critic Winston Cook-Wilson. 

Another critic suggests that Costello's contribution is "a breathtaking ballad with dramatic strings and a gorgeous sense of melody, sung with a vulnerability that suits the lyrics as Cash poetically reflects on mortality."

"I'll Still Love You" reminds me very much of Costello's original song "You Shouldn't Look At Me This Way" from last year, which he penned for the motion picture Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

In a video interview that accompanied the release of "I'll Still Love You," Costello muses about how everything fell into place. "The folio of lyrics was before me on the kitchen table, and there was one lyric that was thought to be one that might suit me," he recalls. "And then I was glancing through the folio and that particular lyric was on the page, and the next thing I could hear it in a very unusual way."

As Costello explains, he didn't hear Cash's musical sensibility in the poem. Instead, he says, "I knew right away it wasn't meant to be played. ... You could hear his musical voice on many of the lyrics on the page but not this one; not me anyway. I heard something completely different."

In this case, according to Costello, he went downstairs to his upright piano and "pretty much wrote what you hear in 10 minutes," in putting the Man in Black's poem to music.

One of these mornings
I'm going rise up flying
One of these mornings
I'll sail away

Beyond the blue
I've gotta promise
There's a world ahead
I want you to know that when I come
I'll still love you

I won't be a stranger
When I get to heaven
'Cause you gave me heaven
Right here on earth
If I get rewarded
With an ancient heart of gold
and for what it's worth
I'll still love you

One of these mornings
When my trouble's over
One of these mornings
When all my suffering is through
I'll go out singing
It'll be a day to sing about
And I'll guarantee for eternity
I'll still love you
I'll still love you

I'll still love you
I'll still love you.

Screenshot photograph of Elvis Costello and "I'll Still Love You" video courtesy of YouTube.com.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things

Hidden Figures:
In conversation with the Library of Congress.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly might not be a household name, but through her book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, and the Academy Award-winning film Hidden Figures that was inspired by it, we've learned about a group of NASA black female professional mathematicians – "human computers" – who helped propel the United States to victory in the space race. Who knew?

"Why haven't I heard this story before?" is a familiar question the Hampton, Va. native, University of Virginia graduate Shetterly hears, more than a year and half after her book was published and turned into a big screen biographical drama starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. Both the book (published by William Morrow/HarperCollins) and the film (distributed by 20th Century Fox) highlight the remarkable stories of pioneering black women mathematicians at NASA whose calculations fueled great achievements for the U.S. space program as it was competing for supremacy against Russia during the Cold War. These pioneers included: Katherine Goble Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury; Dorothy Vaughan, a NASA supervisor; and Mary Jackson, a NASA engineer.

These women weren't household names like NASA astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Yet, they accomplished great things and led extraordinary lives in eras of limited opportunity for women. They broke barriers before gender, race, science and politics became a rallying cry for females.

Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly.
Through Shetterly's storytelling, we learn there are scores of other black women – hidden figures – who worked for decades in anonymity as professional mathematicians, scientists and engineers. They overcame gender and racial hardships, and through their perseverance, they were all bright lights.

"Of course, the factors making their narrative so compelling to modern audiences are the same that conspired to keep the story under wraps for so long: racial segregation, gender bias and the arcane, sensitive nature of the work being done at NASA kept these women in the national blindspot," Shetterly wrote in the March/April issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. 

Last week, Shetterly and American film producer Donna Gigliotti, who developed Hidden Figures into an Academy Award-winning movie, appeared at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as part of the Library's Women's History Month, in an hour-long forum, "Hidden Figures: Courage, Command, and Human Computers." As both spoke in conversation with Marie Arana, the Literary Advisor of the Library of Congress, black and white images of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson were projected onto the stage celebrating these real-life hidden figures.

Hidden Figures producer Donna Gigliotti
"The truth is Margot was really onto something with her book that I could feel, that I knew it," said Gigliotti. "It was about American women not getting their due, African-American women not getting their due. It was about space, a confluence of things. I never doubted it wouldn't be successful."

Asked to describe how she researched Hidden Figures, Shetterly said, "The chain of knowledge was so interesting. One fact led to another. The first interview was with Katherine Johnson. She mentioned a number of people in that interview, such as Dorothy Vaughan. She mentioned Mary Jackson, who I did know because she worked with my father in the early part of his career.

"Every time I got a clue, I would just have to go off kind of like an archeologist and excavate the information. The information was really there, but it had never been collated into one place."

Shetterly said that the National Archives and the NASA History Office were particularly useful in her research as well as the interviews she conducted with principal hidden figures, such as Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, and their children.

"There was so much information," said Shetterly. "Spending so much time with the math and the science and the engineering and with the reports was useful and it was like being in a time machine. I went back to 1943. Sometimes, it was about airplanes – because they were working with airplanes before space ships – other times it was about civil rights legislation that opened up public schools and public accommodations. Sometimes, it was about breakthroughs made by women during World War II. I got an incredible history lesson in doing this research. These people came back to life."

According to Shetterly, wrestling the information into a narrative was the hardest thing for her to accomplish. "It was important that the people led the story. It was always a human story and not just historical facts," she said.

Donna Gigliotti and Margot Lee Shetterly.
From listening to Shetterly and Gigliotti, I learned why storytelling matters and why, through books and films like Hidden Figures, it has the power to transform how each of us sees both our world and ourselves.

"When writers, historians and storytellers strive to present a more expansive – and truer – view of our shared past," said Shetterly, "we open the door to a more inclusive and equitable vision of our shared future."

Photos: All photos by Michael Dickens, © 2018.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Just 16, but Amanda Anisimova is on top of the world

Amanda Anisimova / On top of the tennis world.

Sixteen-year-old American tennis player Amanda Anisimova had not won a tour-level match until she arrived to play in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells last week. Now, she's on top of the tennis world. Given a wild card entry into this annual, late winter WTA Premier event in the scenic California desert, Anisimova in just a few days has been nothing short of phenomenal – and she's fearless, too.

Whether she's hitting ripping forehands or two-fisted backhands – both with equal determination and success – the 149th-ranked Anisimova has been impressive. She's not dropped a set in winning her first three matches while tearing through the 96-player singles draw round by round.

During Sunday's Stadium One opener, Anisimova defeated two-time Wimbledon champion and No. 9 seed Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to the fourth round. The loss ended Kvitova's 14-match winning streak.

As Anisimova, the reigning U.S. Open junior champion, zeroed in on her latest victory – two days earlier, she advanced with an impressive win over No. 23 sed Anastasia Pavyuchenkova – it prompted Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber to quip, "She's too young to be nervous."

Indeed, playing composed and focused well beyond her years, Anisimova placed 63 percent of her first serves in play and won 70 percent (23 of 33) of her first-serve points while losing just 19 points on her serve against Kvitova. She broke her opponent five times, outpointed Kvitova 59-46, and won on her first match-point opportunity. She played smart and made good shot selections.

"I'm shaking right now. This is the biggest stage I've every played on against the strongest person I've ever played in a tournament," said Anisimova after beating Kvitova in just 69 minutes. "It's just crazy."

Just who is Anisimova? Well, she's the daughter of Russian parents who immigrated to the United States. The 5-foot-11 Anisimova was born in 2001 in Freehold, New Jersey, before moving to Aventura, Florida, where she learned to play tennis at the very young age of two. While she speaks Russian, she's very much American and has been home schooled so she can focus on playing tennis. Last year, at age 15, she earned a wild card entry into the main draw of the French Open.

"This girl is going to be good. She has the look and poise – the attitude – to be a great player," said Tennis Channel analyst and Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova, in describing Anisimova immediately after she beat Kvitova.

Looking back on her biggest win as a professional, in defeating Kvitiova, Anisimova said: "She's the best player I have ever played, and it was the biggest court I have ever played on. So it was definitely nerve-racking kind of, but I was enjoying it so much out there. And I was playing my best. It was a good day."

Front and center, Anisimova is part of a talented group of young American women – which includes Caroline Dolehide and Danielle Collins, each who also received a wild card entry into the Indian Wells main draw – who are starting to gain notice by the tennis media and appreciated by tennis fans.

Next, Anisimova will face her third straight seeded player – and second consecutive top 10 player – when she plays No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova, a former World No. 1, in the round of 16 on Tuesday afternoon. While she may not be favored to win, I wouldn't bet against her.

• A postscript: Pliskova defeated Anisimova, 6-1, 7-6 (2). Although she looked a bit nervous and played tentative at times in losing to the more experienced Pliskova, Anisimova enjoyed a great week of tennis at Indian Wells – and she's definitely hit the big time. Plus, she moves up 19 spots to No. 130 on the live WTA world rankings.

A version of this story originally appeared in Tennis-TourTalk.com.
Photo: Courtesy of WTA.com. Video: Courtesy of WTA/YouTube.com.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Serena Williams: There's no wrong way to be a woman

Serena Williams didn't necessarily begin her tennis career thinking she was going to be breaking down barriers, but she has done just that. Over the years, as Williams has become more conscious of the impact she's had on both sport and society, she's found herself with a platform and an opportunity to make a difference. Now, at age 36, Williams embraces being a leader who can pave the way for the next generation of female athletes.

On Sunday night, during the 90th Academy Awards telecast, Nike celebrated the life of Serena Williams. In a powerful 30-second spot, which featured a montage of footage of Williams on the tennis court throughout her storied career, the Nike ad included a voice over by the 23-time Grand Slam tennis champion, who made a powerful statement about womanhood, race and motherhood, saying there's no wrong way to be a woman. 

She said:

I've never been the right kind of woman.
Oversized and overconfident,
Too mean if I don't smile.
Too black for my tennis whites.
Too motivated for motherhood.
But I'm proving time and time again ...
There's no wrong way to be a woman.

Against a dark backdrop, the spot concluded with the words "Until we all win" next to a Nike logo.

The ad was created by Wieden + Kennedy of Portland, Oregon. 

A two-page Nike print ad featuring Williams, also created by Wieden + Kennedy, appeared in Sunday's New York Times. It said:

You told a little girl she was too black for her tennis whites. 
And she grew up to be Serena Williams.

In a statement, Nike said, "As we approach International Women's Day, Nike wanted to recognize and celebrate the contributions and achievements of women everywhere and share our belief in gender equality, in this case, delivered by Serena Williams, the greatest athlete of all time."

Nike, it seems, has always maintained a good pulse on cultural relevancy. On Sunday night, it leveraged an opportunity to elevate Williams's stature as athlete, who breaks down barriers and inspires women, before not only a large and captive prime-time audience watching the Oscars telecast in the U.S., but also a worldwide audience, too. 

"I'm still looking to the future, to breaking down additional barriers, like gender equity and pay equality," said Williams, in a statement released by Nike. "It doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and I'm going to keep on going and working at it, and I encourage others to use their voice and their platforms to do the same."

Becoming a mother has definitely been a game changer for Williams, and she said her fight for change and gender equality is something she's doing on behalf of her six-month-old daughter, Alexis. "I want my daughter to be truthful and honest, strong and powerful; to realize that she can impact those around her," said Williams. "I want her to grow up knowing a woman's voice is extremely powerful. As females, we need to continue to be loud and make sure we are heard."

Video:  Courtesy of Nike YouTube channel. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Winter Olympic memory that brought joy and heartbreak

Russian silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva /
She created brilliant figure skating moments.
Over two weeks and three weekends, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics filled our hearts and television screens with lots of excitement. For my wife and I, much of it took place on the Olympic figure skating ice.

Sometimes, it was colorful and loud, oftentimes it was elegant. There were plenty of thrills and excitement, just a few spills and disappointments, but enough flash and panache to make it all seem worthwhile.

Because of the 14-hour time difference between South Korea and the U.S. east coast, we tuned in to watch figure skating following our nightly dinner – and, occasionally, it kept us awake past our bedtime. Sometimes, we watched online. Because we cared, learning about the human side of many of the Olympic figure skaters competing as well as about the sport's history was a real treat.

During the final two nights of figure skating last week, after the excitement of the team, men's and ice dance competitions, we had the noblest pleasure of watching the 18-year-old Russian Evgenia Medvedeva make her Olympic individual debut in the ladies' singles event. Performing to "Nocturne" by Frederic Chopin, Medvedeva performed her short program, which included a triple flip/triple toe loop combo, triple loop and double Axel, flawlessly. Her score of 81.61 points placed her second behind her Russian teammate Alina Zagitova, who scored 82.92.

Medvedeva's skating maturity and artistic presentation were well beyond her years. From watching her skate and in listening to the comments expressed by the NBC figure skating commentators, it gave us a joy of understanding Medvedeva, both as an athlete and as an individual. Among the things we learned about her: Medvedeva likes studying foreign languages, enjoys drawing, is fond of listening to music (such as K-pop), and loves Japanese culture (such as anime). She may skate like an adult, but she's a kid at heart – and that's the beauty and joy of it all.

Two days after skating her short program, Medvedeva returned to the Olympic ice. She was the last of 24 skaters to present her long program, which decided the gold medal – and was won by Zagitova by the slimmest of margins, 239.57 to 238.26. Medvedeva, skated as Tolstoy's tragic "Anna Karenina" with music composed by Dario Marianelli. 

As she skated, we rooted for Medvedeva, a two-time world champion and consensus favorite to win the gold before she broke a bone in her right foot last fall. As The New York Times wrote, "Medvedeva was forced to confront a sobering reality on Friday at age 18: Experience and artistry and expressiveness did not prevail over mathematics."

Before her final performance, Medvedeva said, "I'm not chasing numbers, I'm chasing feelings."

There was a beautiful, athletic bounce to Medvedeva's skating, a lovely expression on her face throughout her four-minute free skate to a classic Russian story. Medvedeva was Anna Karenina – and she gave it her all. She was mentally tough and she skated brilliantly. It was a perfect, balanced and mistake-free performance – Medvedeva didn't do anything wrong – even if it didn't earn her the gold medal.

What a way to win if you're Zagitova. What a way to lose if you're Medvedeva – even if losing means winning the silver medal.

Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova.
Indeed at age 15, Zagitova became the second-youngest women's skater to win the Olympic gold medal. With shrewd design and stamina, precision jumping and a sense of "youthful certainty," Zagitova landed all 11 of her jumps in the second half of her balletic "Don Quixote" free skate long program, compared to eight for Medvedeva. As The New York Times explained: "This is known as back loading, and is meant to gobble up a 10 percent bonus awarded for each jump beyond the halfway point of a routine, as skaters' legs begin to tire." 

Skating with calm and endurance, Zagitova's strategy – which was within the rules even if it broke the spirit of them – worked to her advantage, even if it wasn't as emotional and captivating as Medvedeva's long program.

The two Russian figure skaters each scored 156.65 in the free skate and Medvedeva was ranked first ahead of Zagitova. Looking back, Medvedeva's technical elements included: a triple flip/triple toe loop combo, a triple Lutz, a triple flip, a triple loop, a double Axel/double toe loop/double toe loop combo, a triple Salchow/triple toe loop combo and a double Axel. Her interpretation of her music was superb. 

"If most skaters skate with their brains," said NBC figure skating analyst Johnny Weir, as he watched Medvedeva perform, "Evgenia skates with her entire soul throughout her performance."

At the conclusion of Medvedeva's performance, NBC figure skating commentator Terry Gannon was moved to say, "I don't know if we just watched gold, but we watched greatness."

As it happened, Zagitova's victory was the second consecutive gold medal won by Russian women. Because they operate in a centralized training facility, unlike in the U.S., the top skaters challenge each other on a daily basis in practice. Thus, Zagitova was challenged by her friend and training partner Medvedeva – and it paid off. 

Looking back, as Medvedeva received the plaudits of the appreciative crowd before skating off the ice after to await her adjudication, she shed tears of joy – maybe of relief, too. Despite facing enormous pressure, she skated marvelously – a season-best performance. In our eyes – and many others, too – Medvedeva was a winner. And, yet, she handled her defeat so graciously. 

"She created brilliant moments," said NBC figure skating analyst and 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lapinski in describing what she had just seen Medvedeva perform. "This was one of the best ever competitions."

After receiving her silver medal, Medvedeva had time to reflect. "It's life and it's a lesson," she said. "Every year, every moment, every day, every week, every month, we must become stronger. ... Today, we proved ourselves here."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Forever: At 36, Roger Federer rewrites tennis history

Roger Federer arrived in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam last week with an unexpected opportunity of reclaiming the title of No. 1 male tennis player. He was given a wild card entry and a top seed in the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in exchange for interrupting his winter family vacation at home in Switzerland.

A perfect draw scenario required that Federer, ranked No. 2 in the world, need only to reach the semifinals of this ATP 500 event – where he would earn 180 ATP rankings points – and if successful, the No. 1 ranking would be his by a mere 25 points over the current World No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

After a pair of straight-set wins advanced him to the quarterfinals, Federer played for history on Friday night against his good friend, the unseeded No. 42 Robin Haase of the Netherlands, on Centre Court, in front of a sellout crowd at the Rotterdam Ahoy arena – plus a world wide TV audience.

The Swiss maestro didn't disappoint anyone.

In an emotional touchstone, Federer beat Haase, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, in just 79 minutes, and he received a standing ovation from the appreciative Dutch crowd, many of them waving signs and banners. Federer briefly broke down after his meaningful and historic achievement was completed. Then, he was honored by the tournament's director, Richard Krajicek, who presented Federer with a commemorative trophy for becoming the oldest player to reach the ATP No. 1.

"I think reaching No. 1 is one of if not the ultimate achievement in our sport," said Federer, addressing the crowd after his record-breaking achievement. "So, sometimes at the beginning you just all of a sudden get there just because you're playing so well. Later, you sometimes try to fight it back and you wrestle it back from somebody else who deserved to be there. And when you're older, you know you feel like you have to put maybe sometimes double the work in. So, this one maybe means the most to me (of any achievement) throughout my career, getting to No. 1 and enjoying it right here at 36, almost 37 years old. (It) is an absolute dream come true, I can't believe it."

Although recapturing the No. 1 ranking for the first time since Nov. 4, 2012 – and supplanting Andre Agassi by more than three years to become the oldest male tennis player to be ranked World No. 1 – hasn't been a primary goal of his in 2018, everything has fallen into place very nicely for the 20-time Grand Slam champion. First, Federer helped Switzerland win the Hopman Cup in Perth to begin the year. Then, he won the Australian Open for a record-tying sixth time on Jan. 28. While other former No. 1 champions such as Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have struggled with injuries, Federer remains healthy and undefeated with a perfect 12-0 tour-level record (16-0 in all competitions).

Chasing after his 97th career ATP singles title on Sunday afternoon, Federer routed World No. 5 Grigor Dimitrov, 6-2, 6-2, to win the Rotterdam title. Looking fully focused and ready, Federer's victory marked the 30th time that he's defeated a Top 5 opponent in the final to earn a tour-level title.

"What a week it's been; absolutely amazing," said Federer, during the trophy presentation. "The goal was to make it to the semis – and I won the tournament. So, of course, I'm incredibly excited and so very happy. ... I'm still living the dream."

Indeed, in the past 14 months since January 2017, Federer has won three of his 20 Grand Slams (two Australian Opens and Wimbledon). In a professional career spanning 20 years, Federer has played 1,394 matches and won 1,144 of them – simply, an amazing achievement.

It's amazing to see Federer playing so well at age 36 – breaking records on court while balancing family life away from it – and according to U.S. Davis Cup captain and former No. 1 and Grand Slam champion Jim Courier, in a recent New York Times interview, "That he can make another run at the No. 1 ranking ... is a testament to his immense talent, diligent work habits and intelligent scheduling over the course of his career."

After his triumphant return to No. 1, the American apparel and footwear corporation Nike recognized Federer. who has long worn the familiar Nike swoosh on his tennis attire and shoes, and has an exclusive line that is marketed around the world. "Federer should be making history," the full-page advertisement in The New York Times read. "But Federer is too busy making it."

Federer's career has come full circle. He played his first tournament as World No. 1 in 2004 in Rotterdam, and now he's returned to No. 1 a day after winning Rotterdam in 2018. "It's definitely one of those weeks I will never forget in my life," he said. "It's unbelievable to get my 97th title and get back to World No. 1. It's very special."

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A commentary: How long will we accept weapons of war being used to slaughter our nation's children?

On Wednesday, President Trump did not address the nation after the Florida high school shooting that left at least 17 dead. While his advisors recommended he say something in the aftermath of the latest horrific mass shooting in America, such as what President Obama did back in December 2012 in dealing with the Sandy Hook Elementary horror in which a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut – a moment he later said in a TV interview was the worst day of his presidency – this President opted not to. Mr. Trump remained silent, hiding behind his Twitter account.

While we have become tired of the empty gestures and platitudes which come with each new national tragedy, it seems that we as a nation should be disturbed by this President, who always wants to provoke, never reassure or commiserate like President Obama did so eloquently more than once during his eight-year stewardship of the White House.

Yesterday, before his team's NBA game in Portland, Oregon – just hours after the Florida shooting – Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has always been open about his views on politics, addressed the matter of gun violence head on – unlike our current commander-in-chief. Kerr spoke out passionately about the need to find a way to curtail gun violence in the United States.

"It doesn't seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day in schools. It doesn't matter that people are being shot at a concert, in a movie theater. It's not enough apparently to move our leadership – our government – the people who are running this country to actually do anything. That's demoralizing," said Kerr.

Mind you, gun violence is a deeply personal issue for Kerr, whose father, Malcolm H. Kerr, was assassinated in 1984 by two gunmen outside his office in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was president of the American University of Beirut.

"We can actually do something about it. We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people's lives and not just bow down to the NRA because they've financed their campaign for them," said Kerr.

"Hopefully, we'll find enough people, first of all, to vote good people in, but hopefully, we can find people with courage to help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues. Not building some stupid wall for billions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety, but actually protecting us from what truly is dangerous, which is maniacs with semi-automatic weapons just slaughtering our children. It's disgusting."

Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

In Between: Taking on gender politics without apology

On Sunday morning in Washington, D.C., my wife and I attended a sneak preview of In Between (Bar Bahar in Arabic), a bold and brassy Israeli drama written and directed by Palestinian filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud about living Arab and female in Israel. The "in-your-face-but-not-in-your-face" film is set in freewheeling and secular Tel Aviv, where the fallout from Arab Spring has brought about a new underground of Palestinians who are enjoying never-imagined freedoms – they're caught up in a new social revolution, a new world order, if you will – yet, whose underground nightlife remains contemporary and ethnic.

In Between presents three very different women – a conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim university computer science student; a modern Muslim criminal lawyer who likes to party after hours; and a liberal, Christian underground scene DJ/bartender – who happen to share an apartment where they find themselves balancing their lives between "tradition and modernity, citizenship and culture, fealty and freedom." Each woman tries to shape her own destiny despite living in a conservative Arab society that's entrenched in patriarchy.

In In Between, there's a whole lot of young people who are thinking and behaving differently – a mixture of gay and straight culture – while breaking down sacred and sexual barriers. The film, which stars Palestinian actresses Mouna Hawa (as the beautiful extrovert Laila), Sana Jammelieh (as the artsy and closeted lesbian Salma) and Shaden Kanboura (as the somewhat näive but observant and studious Nour), is presented in Arabic and Hebrew dialogue with English subtitles and includes an exotic and pulsating electronica soundtrack. It is Hamoud's first feature-length film – she did it with Israeli funding – and it earned her a fatwa from her own people because of the frank and explicit subject matter it tackled: homosexuality, intoxication and drug use.

"I couldn't imagine this happening, but I am not surprised," said Hamoud, during a 2017 BBC Newsnight interview. "They didn't want to look in the mirror and see the ugly face that is put in front of them."

As we see during this non-rated 103-minute film, In Between also deals with a Jewish state that treats its Arab citizens with a sense of mistrust, which makes it even more of a challenge for Laila, Salma and Nour to be able to live free in a restricted society and defend their sense of independence from the familial values they no longer share.

Throughout In Between, suggests critic Susan Wloszczyna of RogerEbert.com, what is most intriguing is "how each woman is allowed to make mistakes and learn from them without any judgment on Hamoud's part." Another critic, Ella Taylor of NPR, writes that "Hamoud's narrative instincts can be broad, but she is rarely glib or coy. That she has chosen to focus squarely on internal tensions within the Arab community – the widening cultural and political gulf between the generations – is a mark of her courage, her bravado and her brutal honesty."

In his review of In Between, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott notes that the movie "is fatalistic about the local political situation, pessimistic about men and encouraged by the power of female solidarity. In other words, whether by serendipity or prophetic insight or some combination of the two, it's a perfect movie for the movement."

Adds Hamoud: "The thing that's really touched me is when women come and say 'you are inspiring for us'. I cannot ask for more than this."

In awarding In Between best debut feature film at the Haifa Film Festival, the jury described it as "a powerful creation about women fighting to shape their fate by coping with challenges, through friendship, courage, victory, and by breaking free of shackles, and the price they pay."

In an age of #MeToo, In Between takes on gender politics without apology. I highly recommend this award-winning film, which has received limited release in the U.S.

Photo: Courtesy of Film Movement. Videos: Courtesy of YouTube.